Monday, August 11, 2008

Behold the second coming of the JesusPhone; is it not nifty?

So, I was originally going to post a big iPhone review right at launch; but there were so many problems with the launch, and so many people writing reviews; that I figured maybe I'll hold off, wait for problems to show up and/or be fixed, and just see how we liked the phone, and how we lived with it for a while, before I wrote a real review.

Well, it's now a month to the day since the launch, and Mel and I have been living with our iPhones day in and day out. Time to get down to it.

I guess just to get it out of the way, before we go any deeper what's the three word review?

Fantastic and maddening.

The iPhone 3G is seriously the best smartphone or PDA I've ever had. It's miles beyond any Windows Mobile device, or Blackberry; and I've had several of each, including top of the line import devices that our carriers here in the US think we're too cheap to pay for (and they're right, for the most part we would be).

Unfortunately, that very excellence just makes the disappointments and irritations (and there are a number of them) all the more aggravating.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning, and the buying experience.

Mel and I decided to stay away from the Fanboys at the apple store, and picked out AT&Ts new flagship store for the east valley, at Tempe Marketplace

Coincidentally, this happened to be where AT&Ts Senior Vice President for mobile products for the southwest region was spending his morning, along with two TV stations and the Arizona Republic.

We chose what we thought was a reasonable time to show up, packed up the kids and trundled over there at 6am, to be greeted with a pretty short line:

Apparently the first eight or so folks had been there all night, but most people started showing up just before or just after we got there.

It was raining, and AT&T had thoughtfully setup awnings, and was giving away free chairs with umbrellas, water, donuts and pastries, and coffee. They even had a (lame and cheezy) DJ there.

Really though, it was clear that they took pains to show their appreciation for us, their new or returning customers. They ahd really put some thought into the experience, and into their relationship with the customer; and it was much appreciated.

Here we are, 18th in line, with the kids:

And here's a pair of douchebags who were having WAY too much fun... and if you take a close look at their eyes I think you can see why:

Overall though, it was a decent experience... Until the store actually opened that is.

Unfortunately, we in Arizona have the great misfortune of sharing the latest timezone in the continental US with California; and by that time activations had basically died completely, and AT&Ts internal provisioning systems were not far behind.

We had pre-qualified and it should have been an in and out process; instead it took about an hour from the time we made it through the doors (and we were in the second group through the doors) so it was about 10:30 by the time we headed for home (with me taking a conference call while we were waiting).

So, let's take a look at what you get:

I have to say, Apple never fails to satisfy in their packaging. The iPhone is packaged almost exactly like a fine timepiece. Honestly, I was most reminded of opening one of my Omega chronographs.

So, you get an iPhone, a USB sync cable and a USB charger to plug it into, a little white earbud headset, substantial (but less than useful) documentation, a microfiber polishing cloth, and a "SIM removal tool" (which is basically a prebent paperclip).

It took a few hours before the activation servers were able to process the phones in, and get us activated; but it was a very simple process once they came back up.

From there, it was just a matter of setting up sync (more on that later), syncing up, and we were good to go.

So, what works and what doesn't? What's good and what's bad?

Mostly, as I said, things are good. It's a great phone; but the points where it falls down are significant enough, and irritation enough, that they stand out strongly in comparison.

What works:
  • Great phone
  • Great voice quality
  • Visual voicemail
  • Great iPod
  • Very good GPS and maps (very accurate)
  • Location services in general
  • SPECTACULAR interface
  • Semi-tabbed browsing
  • The App store, and the apps
What doesn't:
  • The camera is iffy, but honestly, I don't care much about that
  • LOTS of bad apps with no demos and no refunds
  • No flash, and iffy java support
  • Instability issues with non-apple apps
  • Ringtones are WAAAAY too quiet
  • There are at least six ebook readers, and all of them are bad.
What's there (and good or great):
  • SaveBenjis - An excellent price comparison application
  • Yelp - A local search, review, and social networking app
  • - A movie and showtime search application
  • Loopt (if they can make it work properly) - another local search and social networking app
  • Remote - A wifi remote control for iTunes and the AppleTV
  • Weatherbug - A weather tool, with maps, radar, and local cameras
  • VNC (and other remote management tools)
  • PageOnce - A multi site account aggregation application (all your accounts on one page)
  • Jott - A voice dictation app
  • A BUNCH of great games
  • Good (but not great) browser
  • Push for some apps
  • NetRadio (lots of apps for it)
What's missing:
  • MMS - I don't use it, but lots of folks do
  • Video - This is really only a software question, so I don't know why they didn't include it
  • Real navigation - The maps and location services work great, but they aren't navigation
  • File manager for non-macs that doesn't require a jailbreak
  • File manager that doesn't suck in general - There are six file managers and they all suck
  • Universal IM client with push
  • Ebook reader that doesn't suck - There are six ebook readers, and they all suck
  • A way to edit and search documents with file synchronization
  • Cut, copy and paste
  • Attached disk mode
  • Flash
  • Background processes
  • Push for most apps
  • Not being able to save attachments (and having to read documents from attachments)
  • VOIP
  • Autoswitching between networks
  • REAL tabbed browsing, and a way to open links in new tabs
  • Bluetooth keyboard
  • Bluetooth stereo
  • SSH (just came out a couple days ago)
  • No syncing of notes, tasks, or to-do lists
  • No way to kill processes without rebooting
  • Calendar sharing.
  • No tethered data
What's iffy:
  • Battery life
  • Compromising functionality for purity of design (cut and paste for example)
  • Compromising functionality for battery life without giving the user the option
What's profoundly broken:
  • MobileMe
Ok, so that's quite a list; let's talk about it.

Mostly my problems come from deliberate decisions that Apple (and most likely Steve himself) made; either for purity of design, or to improve battery life.

Steve finds copy and paste for touch interfaces inelegant, so he doesn't want to include them.... Ok, yes they are inelegant; however they have been one of the fundamental elements of the GUI interface since it's invention, and the rest of us don't care if they're inelegant, we just want to be able to copy cut and paste.

Clearly, the decision to not allow background processes, expanded push, bluetooth stereo, real navigation etc... were all to preserve battery life. Personally, I'd rather have the option to lose some battery life in exchange for all of the above (and others besides).

And then there is the battery life... which is not nearly as bad as some people have claimed, but it isn't great that's for sure.

Ok, if you leave brightness high, set your email to check every 15 minutes, leave wi-fi on and searching for networks, leave push on, and turn autolock off, you are going to deplete your battery from full charge to criticial (10%) in about 8 hours.

On the other hand, if you shut wifi and 3g off, put autolock on 1 minute, set your brightness to below half (which is still perfectly readable by the way), and set your fetch to 30 minutes; you'll get three good days of standby out of the thing without hitting critical. Shut push off, and set your email fetch to manual, you get an extra day.

Talk time on 2g is pretty good, at 10 hour; and on 3g it's very good in comparison to other 3g phones at nearly 6 hours. The real killer is using the 3D video capabilities; they eat the battery like you wouldnt believe. 4 hours of 3d videogaming and you're done.

In normal usage, with wifi turned on but not searching for networks, 3g on, and everything else as I described above; I can go through a normal work day, which usually involved 30-60 minutes on my cell phone (I mostly work from my landline when I'm in my home office), and not be below 50% at the end of the day.

So, for my usage, it's just fine. If I was a full time traveller (as I once was) it would probably be a problem, but they sell charging widgets, reserve batteries, and other similar gadgets to recharge the thing on the go if necessary; never mind charging it in your car, at your desk, or from your laptop (all of which of course you can easily do). I have one on order in fact, in case I'm away from charging facilities for more than 8 hours, or I get stuck on a long call when I'm away from charging facilities.

One thing that REALLY irritates me, is that Apple has disabled the ability to use the iPhone as a 3G modem for your laptop. This one really IS a big deal for me, because half the reason I have a 3G phone is to use it for network access when I'm away from a Wi-Fi hotspot etc... The reason why they did this is very clear, it's the carriers.

In fact, an app is available to let you use the iPhone as a proxy and network connection for any computer with wi-fi; but at AT&Ts request, apple has removed it from the U.S. app store (it's still available in some other countries).

This of course is also why there is no real VOIP provider available... and is a good segway to the app store.

Ok, first off, the appstore is GREAT. It's completely easy to find, and download apps; and oh man there are a lot of great apps.

Of course, there are a lot of crappy apps too; and there are no demos, no trial periods, and no refunds. Apple is making pretensions as to providing some kind of quality assurance for the app store... in fact it's their primary jsutification for not allowing applications outside the app store... but they allow literally hundreds of garbage applications, that are crashing the phone left and right.

I'd wager that most of the complaints about the iPhone crashing are from these poor third quality apps.

The fact is though, is that the phone IS somewhat less stable, even without the third party apps. It's a lot better than windows mobile (which I would have to restart several times a day even under the best circumstances), but I have had to restart a couple times a week, and have had to make one hard reset.

Mel on the other hand hasn't had a single problem. In fact she only had to restart for the first time a few days ago, and had to ask me how. Of course I have installed, uninstalled, reinstalled etc... about 60 apps, and she's done like 15.

My two biggest application related irritations are the lack of a useful file manager, and the lack of a good ebook reader.

So far, there have been a number of both types of applications, and they're all horrible.

Again, Steve didn't include a file manager because he thinks they are inelegant; but they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to any kind of serious use of the phone as a computing device rather than just as a phone. Related to that, there is no inbuilt way to transfer files to the phone, except by emailing them to yourself or uploading to a web page.

You can't even attach via USB and transfer files, as you can do with iPods, and with every other smartphone.

There are workarounds in the app store, but again, they're all crap; and they cost money.

Speaking of all crap costing money, E-books are the most important thing I do with my smartphones other than basic PDA tasks, and email. There are LOTS of ways to read ebooks on the iPhone, but all of them are ugly, unreliable, slow, clunky, and jsut not worth the trouble to work with... oh and they're all expensive as well from $5 to $20; whereas windows mobile ebook readers are almost all free.

Another important task for smartphones is web browsing, and here I have to say the iPhone is by far the best mobile web browsing platform I've ever used. Mobile safari is excellent, it's rendering is basically perfect, its java support is Ok (better than any other mobile browser), and though it doesnt support actual tabbed browsing, it does have the ability to support multiple browser windows, which is ALMOST as good.

Where it falls down is in dynamic content. Though Java is good, web 2.0 AJAX apps can be iffy, and there is no flash; which is a major deficiency, given the popularity of flash on commercial web sites).

Oh and there is no way to manually open a link in a new window; though if the link targets a new windo it will do it. That may not sound like much, but it seriously reduces the usefulness of the multiple window functionality.... of course if they supported copy and paste maybe...

Now those of you "in the know" know that a lot of these deficiencies can be compensated for, or entirely eliminated, with a jailbreak; which allows you to use the iPhone as a little UNIX box... which is exactly what it is by the way.

Well, yes, that's true; but most people don't want to bother jailbreaking; and at least for now it is a time consuming PITA to do it. So, I'm not going to cover it here... though I will do so in a later post.

Now, to the biggest problem...

Sync is Sunk

Alright, technically, MobilMe isn't part of the iPhone. You dont need the iPhone to use MobileMe, and you don't need MobilMe to use the iPhone; but a heck of a lot of the compelling position for the iPhone, was the push sync with MobileMe; and of course apple sold it as such.

Flat out, MobileMe doesn't work at all. In fact, it breaks other things. You can read all the horror stories online, but I can tell you that MobileMe has spontaneously deleted my contacts and calendars several times (I back everything up).

Worse, it didnt just kill the sync data in MobileME, it also deleted it from my iPhone, AND worst of all, deleted it from Outlook.

Thankfully as I said, I back up my outlook PST daily, so I have been able to recover; but obviously I've disabled MobilMe sync from my primary Outlook installation. Every few days however, I've completely uninstalled, cleaned up a system, reinstalled with current software, and tried syncing MobileMe with Outlook again, on a test box. No joy, and it's still deleting things.

Finally, after nearly a full month, I called Apple friday. I had emailed them before with no response; unfortunately email is the only way to get MobileMe support.

Then, about a week ago, the support email disappeared. You would click on the support page, which sent you through a troubleshooting form that was supposed to give you a support email if it didn't work; only it didn't. It gave you another form that was also supposed to give you an email.. but didnt.

At that point, there was literally no way to get support from apple for a product I paid $150 for (family account).

Well, when I finally got fed up with not recieving any help, I called apple on a number I got from Gethuman, and explained to first an OS support person, then a "customer support escalation manager", then a "product escalation specialist" what was going on. I then said that I needed help, or I needed my $150 back. It had been a month and I was still unable to sue the service.

After two hours on the phone with Apple, they said they would have to further escalate my case, and that I would be contacted within 24 hours.

That was Friday.

It's Monday.

I haven't been contacted.

At this point, even Steve jobs has acknowledged in an email widely distributed within apple (and soon thereafter on the internet) that they screwed up on MobileMe.

Now, let me jsut say, if the service worked, it would be fantastic. The design is great, the functionality is great... it just doesnt work at all.

I should also note that syncing directly with oulook and iTunes works just fine. I've never had a single problem with it; excepting that the machine with my primary outlook on it isn't the machine I sync my iPhone with, so I have to sync those two machiens somehow; and there is no good way to sync two machines outlook that I know of (there are lots of ways, and I think I've tried them all. None of them are any good).

So, what do I think?

I still think it's the best smartphone ever. I still think it's great. I still think it's worth every dollar. Unless you have a specific software need for windows mobile software; or you can only get email through a blackberry (as many corporations have decreed and configured); the iPhone is the best phone of any kind to buy, never mind just a smartphone.

Just try it, trust me.